So how bad were relationships between Japan and the U.S. in the early 20th century? Let’s put it this way: Anyone wouldn’t have been surprised if the two countries went to war someday.

International politics isn’t usually on the radar of this journal, but the long-running thread of anti-Japanese fervor can even be found in the Santa Rosa newspapers, and some context helps to interpret where the line was drawn before WWI between geo-political opinions and overt racism.

Unlike many other places in California, Sonoma County had little enmity towards Japanese immigrants. Part of the reason was the respect given Fountain Grove wine maker Kanaye Nagasawa, who came to America via Scotland (where he picked up English with a distinctive burrrrrrr) and was portrayed in the papers as an innovator in the manner of Luther Burbank. Locals apparently also viewed Japanese laborers as kindred spirits, seeking to scratch together enough money for a family homestead. Santa Rosa even had a Japanese employment office because immigrants were sought out as hard-working domestics, farm workers, and general labor.

By contrast, Chinese immigrants were isolated and the target of bigotry in Santa Rosa, usually described in the local newspapers of the day as criminal or foolish “Chinks” or “Celestials” who could barely speak English (which sometimes might have been a feint to play the game of diminished expectations). When they were mentioned in the Press Democrat of that era, it was typically an arrest or something that was an opportunity to write a “humorous” racist vignette (usually with pidgin dialog), often concerning a broken marriage or other personal humiliations of Chinese residents.

Before 1904, most Santa Rosans probably couldn’t find Japan on a map on a bet. But once the Russo-Japanese War began, Japan and its military were in the headlines for much of the year. Many Japanese youths in Sonoma County returned home to fight the Czar, and there was a parade and train station sendoff for the boys.

As the war was underway, a movement began to demote Japanese immigrants to the same dismal legal status as the Chinese. In 1905, San Francisco labor unions created the Japanese and Korean Exclusion League, seeking to expand the ban on Chinese “coolie” labor to include other Asian workers. (If you’re wondering where our elected officials stood on these race-tinged issues, Santa Rosa’s own Rep. McKinlay was among the most anti-immigrant hardliners in Congress, leading California House Republicans who helped defeat Teddy Roosevelt’s attempt to make exceptions in the Chinese Exclusion policy for “officials, teachers, students, merchants, or travelers for curiosity or pleasure.”)

( “If Japan Should Attack Us” Sunday feature in the San Francisco Call, Sept. 23, 1906)

Japan’s victory over Russia in the autumn of 1905 only fed American anxieties. Now it wasn’t only hordes of farm laborers to fear, but the possibility that Japan had a robust industrial base that could undercut U.S. exports to Asia, along with a navy capable of challenging the United States militarily.

Fearmongering became a common theme in the early 1906 newspapers. When the British launched a Dreadnought warship, the Feb. 12 NY Tribune used the news in an op/ed to point out that Japan was building two warships of this type, but U.S. ships were years away. An editorial in the Feb. 11 LA Herald warned, “…little Japan, grown ‘cockey’ by its recent victories, is nudging the sleeping giant and whispering to it to ‘go in and win.’ But recently the Japanese government had the nerve to twist the lion’s tail by criticizing the army formations of Great Britain. And reports come that Japan is working day and night on its naval armament…” An adjacent article by “Captain A. W. Best” warns that the “real aim and aspiration of the yellow races…[is] to win first the Pacific slope of North and South America (and Northern Australia) and having established themselves, like weeds there and choked out the white race in those areas to gradually extend the process to the rest of the world…” There was also a Panama Canal angle: Canal-bashers in Congress implied that if it was completed, Japanese warships could use it to attack the U.S. East Coast.

In short order, the situation became a replay of the anti-Chinese hysteria of the 1880s. Champion of the Japanese and Korean Exclusion League was a San Jose Congressman who delivered a Japanese exclusion speech. The San Francisco school board issued an order to segregate “pupils of the Mongolian race” from public schools, charging that classrooms were overcrowded with Asians (in reality, the order only applied to 93 Japanese kids, since Chinese schoolchildren were already forced to go to the “Oriental School”). Following the 1906 Earthquake, Japanese scientists visiting San Francisco were pelted with rocks, perhaps because one of the Exclusion League’s statements claimed the Japanese liked earthquakes: “Do not for a moment think that the Japanese will keep away on account of the earthquakes. They are raised on earthquakes in Japan, and the earthquake will only make the Nepponese [sic] coolies feel more at home in California. ”

The view from Sonoma County can be found by sampling the local papers from January, 1907. Teddy Roosevelt had just ordered the San Francisco Board of Education to keep Japanese students in the public schools, and on the seventh the Santa Rosa Republican printed wire stories about the Governor and an Oregon Senator denouncing the order. The next day, the Republican reprinted an Oakland Enquirer editorial on the “commercial menace of Japan,” warning that the Japanese could horn in on lucrative flour exports if they started grinding wheat grown in Asia. On Jan. 24, the Press Democrat published the editorial cartoon seen at right, powerful in its imagery if rather vague in message (click to enlarge).

Most significant is that both Santa Rosa papers never, as far as I can find, reprinted items from the Bay Area press that suggested that the Japanese were “coolies” or part of a Fifth Column, called for them to be deported or their children removed from school, or otherwise suggested that they were undeserving, lesser people. Yes, individuals were sometimes disrespectfully (in modern eyes) referred to as “Japs” or even “little brown men” in local articles, but if those editors truly intended to publish racial putdowns, they had a lexicon of hateful invective available to them from the San Francisco papers.

Santa Rosa’s big event for that month was a speech by Democratic Party superstar William Jennings Bryan, and more than 3,000 packed into the skating rink on a Saturday afternoon to hear him pontificate about America’s greatness and its destiny to lead the world. In the portion of his speech summarized in a Press Democrat article below, Bryan also pitched the conflicts between Asia and the United States as sort of a crusade for the “active, positive faith of Christianity.” Oh, dear.

The situation only spiraled down. Japanese who had become naturalized citizens but lost their papers in the San Francisco earthquake were denied their former citizenship. 1907 also witnessed two incidents in San Francisco involving White drunks that turned into anti-Japanese riots, and similar riots followed in Berkeley (!) in 1909. The Exclusion League tripled in membership groups, and in 1910 there were an astonishing 27 anti-Japanese laws proposed in the California legislature. William Jennings Bryan, always helpful, told President Woodrow Wilson in 1913 that the problem could be solved if half the Japanese in California were relocated to other states.

Most of those woes didn’t impact Japanese immigrants in Sonoma County, but the California Alien Land Law of 1913 did. They could no longer buy property, or even legally rent land for more than three years, and a 1920 ballot initiative further blocked their ability to have the actual land title held in the name of a trust, business, or their citizen children. The courts later chipped away at the restrictions somewhat, but the entire law was not overturned in California until 1952.

While trade unions and the California Grange sparked the anti-Japanese movement, it was the newspapers of the day that are most to blame for fanning the flames white hot. The pro-union San Francisco Chronicle kept the issue on the front page for much of 1905-1906, even reviving it when interest waned after the quake. It became fodder for a newspaper war with the Hearst-owned San Francisco Examiner’s long-running “Yellow Peril” series, which most famously offered a 1907 Sunday feature titled, “Japan May Seize the Pacific Coast.” The Hearst syndicate continued playing this alarmist theme for years and hit rock-bottom – which for them, was really saying something – when in 1915 they ran an article supposedly revealing secret plans for a Japanese invasion of California via Mexico. The photos were twenty years old, and the basis of the story was badly-translated fiction from a Japanese magazine.

Masterly Address Is Heard by Immense Audience
Splendid Reception Tendered the Distinguished Statesman in the City of Roses Saturday

It was an immense audience that gathered in the pavilion on A street to hear the Hon. William Jennings Bryan, the distinguished Nebraska statesman, on Saturday afternoon. They came from far and near to see and hear one of the country’s foremost men. They saw and heard and went away satisfied, carrying with them the inspiration of a high resolve, and uplifted and elevated by the stirring sentiments expressed by the celebrated speaker.


Mr. Bryan dwelt at considerable length on modern China and her issue from the dormant condition of two thousand years. The negative creed of Confucius is giving place to the active, positive faith of Christianity, he said. Progressive viceroys of different provinces are organizing schools not for the teachers of the musty philosophy of the past, but the newer ideas of a nearer age placed before the earnest student. “I see the day,” said the speaker, “when Christianity will illuminate the lang [sic], dark places of the Orient.”

Referring to Japan the speaker said she was facing one of the most important crises in her history. She had copied western ways and now it remained to see whether she would borrow western religion, or endeavor to build up the nation without religion, and with agnosticism and infidelity.

Very interesting Mr. Bryan alluded to the religions of other races and the idolatry practiced in certain lands. He then described the visits he and Mrs. Bryan paid to some of the crowned heads of the old world, and of the ceremony attendant thereon. He was pleased beyond measure, he said, to hear President Roosevelt mentioned all over the world as a lover of peace, growing out of his mission in bringing about a cessation of hostilities between Russia and Japan…

– Press Democrat, January 27, 1907

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The first Sunday funnies appeared in 1897; probably the following Monday, the first critic snorted indignantly that comics were corrupting the youth of America.

In early 1905, a growing number of newspapers were offering Sunday comics sections that included such gentle offerings as Little Sammy Sneeze, a strip about a small child with high-velocity sneezes, and The Upside-Downs of Little Lady Lovekins and Old Man Muffaroo, a novelty cartoon meant to be viewed from both ends. The roughest stuff came from the Katzenjammer Kids (a slapstick cartoon that probably inspired many of the contemporary nickelodeon comedies) and Buster Brown — in the panel to the right, he had just released some mice at a ladies’ party. Both were about pranksters that might have been the great-great grandpas of Bart Simpson, although these rapscallions rarely got away with their misdeeds; Hans and Fritz usually ended up with spankings, and Buster always repented with a final panel reminding kids to obey their parents, tell the truth, or uphold other virtues.

Neither Santa Rosa paper had a Sunday comic supplement in 1904, so the author is probably criticizing funnies that came with the San Francisco Examiner or San Francisco Sunday Call.


The Saturday Afternoon Club held a very interesting meeting Saturday afternoon at the High School… Mrs. C. D. Barnett read a paper on “The Influence of the Funny Paper.” She took the position that the paper had a bad influence on children and they would be better without it.

– Press Democrat, February 5, 1905

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The Santa Rosa Republican was the working man’s newspaper, and while many local merchants ran advertisements in both the Press Democrat and Republican, readers in the latter were more likely to see ads for men’s work boots or heavy flannel underwear than the latest fashions in ladies’ hats.

These ads appeared paired together the week before Labor Day in the Republican, but not once in the Press Democrat. Note that these aren’t ads for Labor Day sales, but simply tributes to American unions and workers. “Put on your best bib and tucker in honor of the day,” reads the Keegan Brothers ad below. “[W]hen you spend your money here, you are patronizing a Union House with Union principles, Union goods, Union help, Union hours, and a place where you should feel at home. There’s always a glad hand here for the Laboring Man.”

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